Until the heart is empty

In the Bowl of Saki for the 28th of March we find this phrase: Until the heart is empty, it cannot receive the knowledge of God. There is hope in this saying, since it implies that, little as we are, there is the genuine possibility of attaining the ultimate understanding, and that is a cause for celebration.  Also implicit is the recognition that we probably don’t know as much about God as we think we do – but let us be optimistic and simply consider the promise being offered.   To receive that knowledge, we might ask, why must the heart be empty?  We are often enjoined to open our hearts – does that not mean that we should allow the world to come in and fill us up?  Isn’t it spiritual to love our neighbour?

We have certainly known people who seem to have their hearts tightly closed against the world; to meet them is like encountering a castle of cold stone with the drawbridge pulled up. And even though we might leave our own drawbridge lowered on sunny days, if we are honest we will admit that there are some people to whom our soldiers at the gate will not grant entrance. In other words, we are open to some, but not to all.

In Sufi understanding, the heart is a capacity, or an ‘akasha.’  As the eyes are a capacity to receive light, and the ears are a capacity to receive the waves of sound, so the heart is made to fulfil a similar function for the magical, all-powerful vibrations of love.  When we keep it closed, the most living place of our being is, so to speak, entombed, with the result that all the other aspects of our life are dimmed and incomplete.  Therefore, the seeker must work to raise the heart from its grave, so that light and life and love may flow through it.

We begin our apprenticeship by loving each other.  Remember the tale that tells of a pious seeker who came to a Sufi Murshid and asked to be taken as a student.  “Have you ever loved?” asked the master, but the seeker, who had been busy all his life with prayers and rituals, said, “No, never.”  “Go and love,” said the Murshid, “and then come again.”  

The more we learn the lessons of love, which are simply the teaching that the beloved is all and we are nothing, the more we become fit for the service of this divine flow. In the best circumstances, the parent’s love for the child awakens this understanding.  But paradoxically, as long as we hold the beloved in our heart, we also affirm our own existence:  ‘I’ love ‘you’, and even if ‘you’ means all the people of a nation, it still leaves a barrier in place, a line separating inclusion and exclusion.  If we wish to have knowledge of God, Who is infinite and all-pervading, then all barriers must be removed, for He has none; nothing may remain to divide the heart. 

We reach this state not by ceasing to love, but by ceasing to be.  Majnun loved Leila so fully that his own self was forgotten.    In that condition, everything becomes Leila – the grass becomes the hem of her dress, the breeze her breath, the stars her eyes, the flowers her perfume, and so on.  And when we love God so completely that we forget ourselves in His presence, the last veil is dropped and we come face to face with the Beloved Who was never absent, Whose embrace was always sustaining us.

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